In 119 BCE, the accomplished Chinese military leader, Wei Qing, launched one of his many incursions into Xiongnu territory on behalf of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE). With him was a subordinate general named Li Guang, a well-respected, but also well-aged, warrior. Although Li Guang was an inspiring officer, with a near-legendary skill with a bow, both Wei Qing and Emperor Wu had their reservations about the old general’s capabilities. Heeding these doubts, Wei Qing decided to remove Li Guang from the vanguard of his army, and instead sent him to reinforce the army’s right flank. Yet, while Li Guang and his forces were traveling to their new position, they unfortunately became lost and fell behind the rest of the army. In the end, Li Guang missed the battle between Wei Qing and the Xiongnu.
Despite Li Guang’s absence, Wei Qing won the day—he nearly encircled the enemy forces, but the Xiongnu leader was able to punch through the Han lines with his cavalry and escape. After the battle, Wei Qing summoned Li Guang to answer for his absence during the battle. Officials in the army would then send a report to the emperor of both the accusations and the general’s responses. The old military leader knew from experience that such unflattering reports could lead to a general being imprisoned, stripped of his titles, and possibly executed. Therefore, the seasoned warrior arrived at the meeting with Wei Qing in a grim state of mind. According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the disgruntled Li Guang appeared for his hearing and abruptly stated “Now I am over sixty—much too old to stand up to a bunch of petty clerks and their lists of charges!” (Shi JI 109). He then unsheathed his sword and cut his own throat.
Many in China mourned the death of Li Guang, but the late general’s son, Li Gan, had the most visceral reaction. Li Gan, like his father, served in the Han military, and he distinguished himself enough in battle to be given the noble rank of marquis, a title also held by the aforementioned Wei Qing. The two marquises, unsurprisingly, did not get along. Li Gan held Wei Qing responsible for driving his father to suicide and Wei Qing, in response, was irritated by Li Gan’s attitude. The friction between the two men steadily built, and, in a moment of weakness, Li Gan lost his composure and physically struck Wei Qing. The general was injured, but the wound was not serious, as Wei Qing quickly recovered and neither he or his friends filed charges against Li Gan. Unfortunately, Wei Qing’s mercy over this incident did not mean that Li Gan was forgiven.
At a later date, both Li Gan and other prominent men of the empire joined the emperor at the Palace of Sweet Springs. Emperor Wu and his courtiers, as noblemen were often wont to do, decided to go on a hunting trip. Yet, the outdoor excursion would prove to be anything but calm and peaceful.
During the course of the hunt, Li Gan eventually paired up with Huo Qubing, a devoted friend and relative of Wei Qing. Unfortunately, only one of the two would survive the hunt. At an unknown time during the trip, Li Gan was found dead and his body contained a suspicious puncture wound. Huo Qubing reportedly witnessed the death and he told the emperor that the dead marquis was killed by a deer. He claimed that, as they hunted together, he and Li Gan encountered an aggressive stag. Despite both hunters being great archers, this stag supposedly rushed the noblemen and fatally impaled Li Gan with an antler. Emperor Wu, who was fond of Huo Qubing, believed (or did not question) the story and publicly backed Huo Qubing’s testimony. Sima Qian and other contemporaries, however, viewed the death with much more suspicion. By the time Sima Qian began writing his Records of the Grand Historian, he had become convinced that Li Gan was murdered:
“When the party reached the Palace of Sweet Springs, an imperial hunt was held. Huo Qubing, who was on very close terms with Wei Qing, took the opportunity to shoot and kill Li Gan. At this time, Huo Qubing enjoyed great favor with the emperor, and the emperor therefore covered for him, giving out the story that Li Gan had been gored and killed by a stag. A year or so later, Huo Qubing died [117 BCE]” (Shi JI 109).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Qianlong Emperor Hunting Hare, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji 109) by Sima Qian. Translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1993).